Our Italian Adventure: Shopping in Italy
Updated: Mar 26
How we moved to Italy. Shopping in Italy.
This part is called: Learning how to shop in Italy.
PART 13: I thought it might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We are in Puglia until the end of September, then back in February.
The topic we will explore is: Shopping in Italy.
Step 1: It doesn't take long in Italy to realize that there are differences in shopping between here and California that can be baffling initially. Examples include: when we first went to an Italian supermarket, we needed a coin to release the shopping cart. We didn't have any coins, so we stood there in the parking lot, baffled. We then went to buy some shirts and found the labeled sizes (X, XL, XXL) noticeably smaller than back in California. Another day we went to look for a small vacuum cleaner and found them for sale in a store that sells washing machines. Then the afternoon closure: I cannot count the number of times we went to a store during siesta, finding it closed.
Little by little, we are getting used to a different way of shopping that starts to make sense the longer we are here. I try to remember not to judge differences but to learn to appreciate them.
Step 2: Grocery shopping. Once we figured out that we could use a basket if we didn't have coins, we entered our local supermarket. The first thing that caught our eye was a prepared food section that looked like a high-end cafeteria/bakery/restaurant. We marveled at the lasagna, salads, freshly baked loaves of bread, pastries, sandwiches, and hot main dishes. The prices were reasonable, so we grabbed lunch before shopping. It was a Sunday; we walked over to the tables, ate our lunches at a leisurely pace, and then made our way to the grocery section. The lights were off. "Why are the lights off?" we asked in our American-accented Italian. "We close at 1:30 on Sundays". Such was our introduction to grocery shopping in Puglia.
We returned the next day, coins in hand, to resume our grocery adventure. We got our prepared food to take home this time and proceeded to make our way through the aisles. We immediately noticed the superior quality of produce. We brought home the most flavorful tomatoes, the sweetest peaches, and the most delicious small pears we have ever had.
I like to drink a lot of milk, but most Italians are not milk drinkers, as exemplified by the smaller milk containers. I put 7-8 bottles in my cart, which would last a few days. We then checked out their yogurt, which is more watery than ours but tastes more natural and less sweet. The cheese section rivaled any expensive supermarket in California for less than half the price. Coffee, tea, juices, it was all there. "Where's the Coffee Mate?" I muttered to myself, forgetting that I was in another country. No Coffee Mate.
Making our way through the supermarket, we realized that, in general, the quality of fresh foods is much better than in California, but the prices tend to be lower.
We were smiling when we left; we could buy some great food at reasonable prices, and we understood the logic of the coin in the shopping cart.
Step 3: Supermarket vs. smaller stores and farmers' markets. "You did what???? Did you buy your fruit at the supermarket? And meat there too? Don't tell me you bought your cheese there????" Our local Italian friends were shocked; we felt that we had committed a crime for which we needed to beg forgiveness.
OK, we assured our local friends. We will try to shop in the local stores rather than get everything at the supermarket.
Our friends had a point: We have discovered that often smaller neighborhood stores have high-quality local produce, butchers have relationships with customers and offer to roast chicken and other meats if ordered the day before, electric stores stock many items at competitive prices, and the proprietors know their products inside and out. Smaller food markets offer services that include preparing cheese trays, cooked lasagna, and risotto if ordered the day before.
Relationships are what matter, and shopping at smaller stores has allowed us to get to know local people in our community, discover high-quality products and avail ourselves of their expertise.
Step 4: Clothing. Since I have trained at the gym for years, I tend to wear XXL shirts. When we went shopping for clothing in Italy, I found that the XXL was equivalent to our L or XL; not all stores carry XXXL shirts, so I found shirt shopping challenging. My shoe size is 14. Enough said about that. For pants, I am pretty standard in the waist but bigger in the legs, which is another challenge here.
I have no experience in women's clothing, so I do not know the challenges in that sphere.
Navigating clothes shopping has been fun, but we are still learning to find what we want in the sizes we need or to bring them from California.
Step 5: Shopping for other items. In Italy, we find that things are grouped differently than in California. We were looking for a digital alarm clock, for example, in a department store, and spent several minutes looking at every shelf in the electronics department. Not finding it there, we fanned out, eventually finding them in the home decor section next to the candles. We were also looking at vacuum cleaners and found them for sale in our neighborhood store that carries washing machines.
Sometimes I see the logic. For example, when cameras are sold in stores selling eyeglasses, they have the idea of a lens in common. But I have to admit that other times I don't. But it is not for me to judge but to appreciate the differences.
Step 6: The siesta. The afternoon break: a wonderful southern Italian tradition that enhances the quality of life in Italy and drives visitors crazy! Though I should know better by now, I went to the pharmacy at 12:30 and found it closed today. I returned at 4:30, finding it still closed. Becoming part of the ebb and flow of life means letting go of expectations that businesses be open throughout the workday and becoming more aware of opening and closing hours.
I had an acquaintance in Los Angeles who visited and traveled around Italy for a few weeks. When he returned, we asked him if he had learned any Italian. "Yes," he said. "What did you learn?" we asked. "I learned one word," he said. We were intrigued and asked what word he took back with him. "Chiuso," he replied. That means "closed."
Step 7: Insights: Learning about locals' ways has been enriching and different. Freshness and quality are more important than efficiency, so locals are more willing to use their time going to multiple stores to get what they need to have fresh quality food daily. We are used to going to Costco or the supermarket once a week, stocking up on items that will last, and avoiding the store in between.
We are learning some excellent lessons about shopping here in Italy.
Watch for my book coming around the 1st of the year: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy."
More next time.